Friday, December 26, 2008

The Shack

A few weeks ago, four people asked me in the space of five days if I’d read The Shack. One was a nun I work with, and another a monk I saw at a retirement party the next day. The third was the deacon at the church where I teach religious education a few times a year. I was working on my unit for January on the Holy Spirit, completing a three-month lesson on the Trinity that has explored images of God with 7-10 graders and their parents. Deacon Larry, who teaches in alternate months, said he thought The Shack did a great job on the Trinity. Then that Saturday night a friend was over for dinner and talking about some graduate work she’s been doing on images of God. She also asked if I’d read The Shack. I had been sold at three, but this recommendation kind of tipped the scales, and I went out and bought a copy.

I looked up the book online first, knowing that I would find the kind of evangelical literature that I’ve always avoided because I find it too didactic and not well-written. I was surprised to see it was causing controversy in the evangelical world. These Catholics were loving it, or if not loving it, certainly finding theology and a “message” they liked. And the basis of their praise of the book was mostly its treatment of the Trinity. It is unusual—a Christian novel not just about one's relationship with Jesus but expanding God images and our encounter to the Triune God.

For those who haven’t come across this phenomenon yet, the book follows a man, Mackenzie, out to a shack, the site where his daughter was brutally murdered a few years before. God, writing him a note signed “Papa,” has invited him there. Once there the shack transforms into a lovely cabin and he spends the weekend with Papa, a large black woman who bakes; Sarayu, the Holy Spirit, an ethereal Asian woman who gardens, and Jesus, who has a big nose, does some carpentry work, but mostly is Mack’s buddy. While there, Mack learns to forgive—mostly God but also himself and others, and to see life more clearly and in better perspective. He gets to ask God some questions and gets good, contemporary theological answers. I recognized most of the discourse from my graduate Introduction to Theology class at St. John’s University.

It’s easy to see what would offend a fundamentalist sensibility. God is larger than religion, and way, way more loving and forgiving. Everyone will be saved—I mean everyone. That’s what the crucifixion was for. And people find their way to God through many incarnations, along many paths—meaning other religions. God doesn’t make bad things happen, ever, not even to work good out of it eventually. However, freedom means that God can’t interfere to change events set in motion by mankind’s choices.

According to the book, independence is the major sin of mankind. This was familiar to me, and makes me squirm. I hit a wall after the first weekend reading the book, when it got down to the core message, which was that all we can do is recognize God wants relationship with us, and give over our independence as we enter more and more deeply into relationship with God. This sounds great, but I find it absolutely terrifying. For me this has always been the message: that I am not happy, don’t experience joy, and basically struggle, because I am unable to turn myself over unconditionally to God. No matter how wonderful the book’s message was, it depressed me to be confronted again by my inability to bring about my own happiness by having “right relationship” with God. I know this is exactly NOT the point—oh how I know it. As you see, even my terminology contradicts the simplicity of the core message. But I can’t go there. I just can’t. Hopefully God is as loving as portrayed in this book and will understand.

I also found the book annoying. Any book that personifies God and starts having God explain things is annoying. Also, it’s just horribly written. That much I expected. When I read the first paragraph, I nearly despaired:

“March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon. Although spring was surely just around the corner, the god of winter was not about to relinquish its hard-won dominion without a tussle.” (Kill me now.)

The good news is that once the author gets to the theology (i.e., to the shack), he seems to have consulted a number of “experts,” and their review and suggestions made the writing, as well as probably the theology, much better.

Unfortunately, he wants to do creative things, to describe a scene that I’m sure pushed his imagination to its outer limit. I’m sad to say, that limit wasn’t far. In the scene late in the book, he describes vision he has after having his eyes rubbed by the Holy Spirit. We can liken it to him seeing not “through a mirror darkly” but with the eyes we’ll have to see after resurrection. Here’s an unfortunate paragraph:

“In a rush of peach and plum and currant flames, an osprey dove toward the surface of the lake, but pulled up at the last instant to skim across its surface, sparks from its wings falling like snow into the waters as it passed. Behind it, a large rainbow-clothed lake trout burst through the surface as if to taunt a passing hunter and then dropped back in a midst of a splash of colors.”

“In a midst of a splash of colors”? When he’s supposedly trying to be precise, he dissolves in a jumble of awkward flourishes. But ultimately, the book is not overburdened with this writing. A good editor? One can hope. It’s a straight story, clean and fast-moving.

I will pass it along to someone I know who would like it, and I recommend it to those interested in Trinitarian theology. It only took two weekends to read, in my spare time. I’m sure many could breeze through it in an afternoon, but for me, there are emotional and psychological blocks to be worked through, always, in this kind of book. I’m sure many, like the monk and nun I work with, and the deacon, would find it really uplifting and encouraging. I found it confrontational—that’s just my personality, perhaps—confronting me with all the ways I am still and never will be “a Good Christian.” This probably means I need the message of “the shack,” which in the end is a simple and unconditional: “God loves you.”


WolfsGotYourTongue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Richardson said...

Hi, Susan--Just wanted to say Merry Christmas and thanks so much for your lovely blog! Your artful care with words is a great gift. A wondrous new year to you and those you love. Peace!

Todd said...

Susan - good post. Admittedly, I haven't read The Shack, and so I'm responding to your review. I'm glad that sections of the book made you squirm. I squirmed from reading your take: anytime theologies or interpretations of theologies go down the path of God, forgiveness, sin, and giving over independence, I want to scream "Noooooooo!" or "Give me a freakin' break!" Like you (I think), I don't believe in a God where you unconditionally turn yourself over. It drives me crazy when I hear people say something to the effect of "God will only give me as much as I can handle." To me that's terribly belittling to yourself and whatever God you believe in.

I believe in something more organic; in fact, I believe that we are God. That is empowerment and that is enlightenment. You don't need to go to a shack. You just need to listen to the Beatles: "...I know you, you know me. One thing I can tell you is you got to be free. Come together right now over me." My two cents.